Saturday 16 December 2017

Uncertainty the only constant as Ireland faces tough questions

Brian O'Driscoll
Brian O'Driscoll
David Kelly

David Kelly

And on it goes. A different weekend, a different city, a different team. But still the same questions facing Ireland's international rugby team.

Still the same nagging doubts tugging impatiently at their sleeves. Still the stubbornly exasperating thoughts within the minds of so many supporters as they anticipate – well, who knows what exactly?

For it is precisely this uncertainty that is killing Irish fans right now. The feeling that with every step forward Ireland take, the nearer they are to taking another couple backwards.

A lot of people have been feeling this way for a long time.

Each occasionally brilliant 80-minute – or 40-minute – display seems like an elaborate deceit, willing the viewer to believe that the team have finally achieved a consistent rhythm.

Sport is supposed to be full of the uncertain, of course; without such unpredictability, any mystery and intrigue would be stripped from all contests.

Except it seems as if the Irish side continue to embrace the uncertain with almost sadomasochistic relish. The concept does not require elaborate investigation.

It is everywhere – from the uncertainty swirling around a coach who may have three games in which to save his job, to the damning silence of those who pay his wages and who may have decided just what Kidney needs to achieve in order to save his job.

Or the uncertainty breathing heavily upon a hitherto hesitant captain, appointed to wide public opprobrium, and the expected, strongly expressed dissatisfaction of his predecessor, Ireland's greatest ever player.

Or the uncertainty which pursues that same player, with speculation mounting that Brian O'Driscoll may make a decision in the next few days about his playing future beyond this season, as he, like his country, struggles to string two consistent performances together.

If this Ireland team are not capable of constructing and evolving; if they cannot master the hardly impossible act of learning from their regular sorties into failure, then what exactly is being achieved?

Balanced, yet again, on a knife edge, with the entire playing and coaching staff's uncertainty jostling furiously with their own infuriating inconsistency, Ireland will tomorrow again attempt to take a great leap forward.

That so many questions attach themselves to the endeavour vividly illustrates the wildly vacillating nature of a squad backed by a coach who literally has no idea whether he will be coming or going when this campaign ends.

And so he and his side hover between creativity and vulnerability, one foot mired in the irrelevant past and the other wavering as it contemplates a decisive step forward.

Ireland's nerve cannot fail them – again.


1 Having conceded that he could not possibly pick Ireland's most capped player, Ronan O'Gara, will the selection of debutant Paddy Jackson pay dividends?

More uncertainty, because nobody actually knows. Last May's Heineken Cup final offers evidence against, but Ulster, with Ferris and Henry half-fit, against unstoppable Leinster, is hardly a parallel comparison.

He has all the potential, but will potential be enough in the heat of battle, particularly without such an assertive half-back partner as Ruan Pienaar to bail him out?

His nerves from the tee are also of an uncertain hue.

2 What would it mean if O'Gara has to be brought on in an emergency?

Kidney's own uncertainty has precluded him from promoting Jackson before now so, like so many other things, the coach will get all the flak should the wheels fall off.

He knows O'Gara isn't an 80-minute player at this level any more, but should Kidney be forced to draft his relief man into the fray, the coach will, win or lose, hear from his most vocal critics. In any scenario that sees O'Gara brought on, it's a lose-lose for the coach.

3 Can Ireland produce an effective game plan and persist with it?

Aside from individual selection calls and the personal responsibility of players to produce performances to the level to which they have become generally accustomed, the team's tactical approach must be uniformly implemented.

It was clearly evident that Ireland were frustrated at what appeared from the bleachers to be a mish-mash of tactics against England; tight, excellent mauling one minute, loose wide play the next, all interspersed with poor tactical kicking and handling errors.

Ireland need to tighten up the game plan. Sure, they can switch it, but whether they are narrow or wide, Kidney's pack, in particular, must commit ruthlessly and allow for no indecision that breeds mistakes and concedes initiative to the opposition.

4 Can Brian O'Driscoll once more re-discover the spark that thrilled so many in Cardiff three weeks ago?

From someone of whom the Irish public have been granted so much over a decade and more, perhaps asking him to replicate the wonders of Cardiff just hours after witnessing the birth of his first child was a little selfish.

Still, it remains a truism and indicative of his talismanic nature that when Ireland fail to perform, their former captain often struggles to reach his own remarkable heights.

Tomorrow, he has the added burden of potentially having to babysit two debutants inside him, all the while keeping an eye on a monstrous opposing midfield duo.

5 Can Jamie Heaslip convince his detractors that he can imprint his leadership on this side?

Aside from the frankly petty personal fascination in some media quarters about Heaslip's predilection for wearing headphones to the coin toss, the more relevant and rigorous analysis of his captaincy has escaped scrutiny.

Utterly outsmarted by Chris Robshaw last time out, Heaslip remains in the shadow of O'Driscoll in leadership terms. The distraction was obvious last time in terms of dropped penalties and penalty concessions.

Much of his work remains effective but only moderately so for a supposedly potential Lions captain. Followers demand captains who lead by their actions; Heaslip's need to vastly improve.

6 Will Tom Court be able to cast aside his last memory in an Irish jersey and contribute positively to the Ireland effort?

Yes, Court is selected to dovetail with his powerful scrummaging Ulster colleague Rory Best, and in Geoff Cross, he is facing a second-choice tighthead, who only narrowly won the selection battle.

Dave Kilcoyne will arrive to offer his rambunctious presence in tight and loose play around the hour; would that Ireland were possessed of such riches on the opposite side of the scrum.

7 Will Munster's second-row be able to rise to the challenge?

Possibly not for the entire game; Donncha O'Callaghan is unlikely to be asked to complete 80 minutes and Donnacha

Ryan may be unable to because of his ongoing back trouble. Ireland's line-out has not operated to maximum efficiency this term; Scotland, with Richie Gray capable of leading a potent aerial assault, can exploit any weaknesses. Ireland must ensure there are none.

8 Can Ireland's bench influence game?

Only those who are not there for emergency purposes. Dave Kilcoyne and Luke Fitzgerald offer vastly differing qualities, for obvious reasons, but share real impact from the bench and neither would be doubted if forced on within the opening 10 minutes.

Eoin Reddan aside, that does not apply to the rest of the bench, albeit Iain Henderson would not be fazed if a re-shuffle compelled his premature entry. apart from O'Gara, the lack of place-kicking options is also a concern.

9 How significant is the presence of so many Ulster players in the side?

All three leading provinces have equal representation and Ulster's is at its highest since the season they won the country's first European Cup in 1999.

In Gilroy, Jackson, Marshall and Henderson – and potentially more, like Darren Cave and Paul Marshall – the province are primed to backbone the team all the way to the 2015 World Cup. Whether Kidney will be there to marshal them is unclear.

10 Can Ireland win?

On the available evidence of an inconsistency stretching back for an intolerably long time since the Grand Slam success of four years ago, presumably yes, given that they flopped last time out.

Irish Independent

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